Since we’ve already had a glimpse of the main categories of Yiddish food, today we’ll look at everything you need for a balanced meal: vegetable, grains, main courses, a few uniquely Yiddish side dishes and something to wash it all down with.
For reasons that remain obscure, Yiddish hasn’t seen fit to develop many idioms or turns of phrase involving fruit. With the exception of such clichés as
DER EPL FALT NISHT VEIT FIN BOYM
The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree,
which you might as well just say in English, fruit doesn’t come out of Yiddish-speaking mouths with anything approaching the frequency with which it goes in.
Vegetables, on the other hand, are well-represented idiomatically, and the ones named above figure in some highly useful phrases:
ZOLST VAKSN VEE A MAIR/TSIbeleh, MITN KOP IN DR’ERD
You should grow like a carrot/onion, with your head in the ground.S’IZ NISHT VERT KA’ TSIbeleh
It isn’t worth an onion
[i.e., not worth a fig].TSIbeleh TRERN
onion [i.e., crocodile] tearsPISHN MIT TSIbeleh TRERN
to piss onion tears; to put on a tremendous show of bogus sympathyA BItereh TSIbeleh
A bitter onion; a wet blanket, a buzzkillerA ZOYereh OOgerkeh
a sour pickle; a wet blanket, a buzzkillerROYT VEE A TSVIK
Red as a beet (tsvik = boorik)HEFker Petreshkeh.
There’s nothing that you (or they) can’t get away with [lit., “ownerless parsley”]
As for the kroyt, or cabbage, it should never be forgotten that old country yokels used to cover their heads with cabbage leaves when there were no yarmulkes to hand.
Baked Goods and Their Toppings
honey cake (to some Yiddish-speakers)LAIkakh
sponge cake (to other Yiddish-speakers)KEEKHL
If someone offers you laikakh and presents you with honey cake, announce that you’d been expecting sponge; if sponge appears, it’s honey that you wanted. A sigh, a rueful shake of the head, and a single useful phrase suffice for either situation:
BEI MEER HAYST DOOS NISHT LAIkakh
As far as I’m concerned, this can’t be called laikakh.
Or you could say,
BEI MEER IZ DOOS NISH’ KA’ LAIkakh
As far as I’m concerned, this ain’t laikakh.
Just remember: Laikakh is always the one you don’t get.
whitefishOY, IZ DOOS A HEKHT!
Oy, is he/she a sucker (or sap)!
In an effort to promote the maximum possible confusion between English and Yiddish, the haddock is known as a shelfish.
calves’ foot jellyHEEN
fatER BLOOZT ZAKH VEE AN INdik
He puffs himself up like a turkey.BLOOZN FIN ZAKH
to puff yourself up, put on airsKIMTS aREIN, KATSHkes IN GENDZ
Time to eat, Come and get it, [lit., “Ducks and geese, come on in”].
Warner Brothers’ Daffy, incidentally, is not a katshkeh; he’s a KOOtsher. When used of individual members of the species, katshkeh denotes a female.
A kishkeh is an intestine or gut, and the kishkehs are as fine a place as any to land a blow or stow a meal.
IKH’L DEER GAIBM A ZETS IN DEE KISHkehs aREIN
I’ll give you a whack in the guts;ER SHTUPT OON DEE KISHkeh
He stuffs his guts.
People who laugh their heads or behinds off in English, laugh themselves out of their kishkehs in Yiddish:
ZEE IZ geBLIBM OON KISHkehs LAKHNdik
She laughed her guts out [lit., “was left without kishkehs (from) laughing”].
sour creamDEE SAmeh SMEteneh
the cream of the crop, the very best; very high class people
Yiddish Dishes That Have the Same Name in English
You don’t need to know what they are, just be sure to demand them — unless you’re in a kosher restaurant, where your bluff might well be called. You want everybody to know that your equivalent of Proust’s madeleine is a bean-based stew rounded out with leftover meat and left to simmer from Thursday night to Saturday afternoon (tshoolnt) or a fruit or vegetable stew, the most popular version of which is made with carrots and canned pineapple (tsimes).
The kigl can also cause your life to flash before your eyes, as can a nice plate of matseh-brei. Kigl, usually called kugel in English, is a “pudding” — whatever pudding means when it isn’t rice, tapioca or Jell-O — made from either noodles (lokshn kigl) or potatoes (kartofl kigl), but never from both at once. It’s so definitively Yiddish a food that preferences for noodle kugels of varying degrees of sweetness are used by ethnographers to determine the internal boundaries of East European Jewish culture.
Matseh-brei, though equally subject to regional variations, is as close as Yiddish cuisine is likely to come to bacon and eggs. Soak some matzoh in water until it’s soft — not soggy, soft — scramble it up with some eggs (anywhere between one egg to every two sheets of matzoh to one egg per sheet, depending on taste) and enjoy…. A memory that one or the other of these can’t summon is a memory that I don’t have.
A Mendel of Eggs
In the old country, eggs were sold fifteen at a time, rather than by the dozen. In the area around Lodz in Poland, where my paternal grandfather came from, a package of fifteen eggs was known as a mendl, just like the male personal name:
GETS MEER A MENDL EIer
Give me fifteen [i.e., a carton of] eggs
Mendel is a very common name, but a mendl of eggs doesn’t translate into English as a “marty.” In other parts of the Yiddish-speaking world, a mendl was called a mandl, which can also mean “almond” or “tonsil.” mendl itself can also mean “sheaf,” and might well be responsible for the Salvation Army’s failure to make much headway in the Yiddish-speaking world. I can’t imagine anyone being converted by a hymn that speaks of “bringing in the mendls, we shall come rejoicing, bringing in the mendls.” It sounds more like a threat than a prophecy.
Zaft, of course, gives us the fabulous zaftik (sometimes spelled zoftig in English), which is supposed to mean “juicy” rather than “hefty.” A zaftik veib is a “juicy woman”— round and firm and fully-packed, she makes a man want to give a squeeze. The widespread English use of zaftik as a euphemism for “fat” owes more to Yiddish irony than to shifting notions of feminine beauty; it’s like calling a heavy woman “well filled-out” in English. Zaftik in Yiddish is closer to “built.”
Next month: Alcohol.
Adapted from “Just Say Nu,” by Michael Wex. Copyright (c) 2007 by the author and reprinted by permission of St. Martin’s Press.